Thoughts from Paul Skinner, author of Collaborative Advantage: How collaboration beats competition as a strategy for success*

Changes in society, technology, security and human vulnerability reflect broad reasons for anticipating risks for which we are universally unprepared. A greater complexity of risk profile means greater uncertainty concerning the nature of future problems and solutions. A clear implication is

  • no one organisation or even sector can prepare for everything using its internal resources alone
  • the need to depend on people and groups we are not in charge of
  • relying on influence rather than control

This emerging reality opens the door to pioneers of Collaborative Advantage to enlarge the imaginative space in which crisis response is anticipated, planned, delivered and enhanced. A further implication is that

  • the best solutions may often begin not with systems of global governance
  • the capabilities of the people affected by risk – which is most likely to be each and every one of us.

Increasing numbers of people and organisations today are already doing more to harness our essential interconnectedness, recognising as a basic starting point that, no matter who you are, there is more talent and resource outside your organisation than inside it. They understand that the better you can become at harnessing and working with that external resource to achieve goals that you can share with others, the more success you are likely to achieve. Such an approach builds success not by focussing on out-performing rivals, but rather by harnessing the fuller value-creating capabilities of the broader external environment. It tells new stories about what we are in the business of doing, and unlocks new types of participation that help us achieve our goals.

In this context, it is evident that the existing approach to humanitarian action can arguably already not keep up with escalating need. The humanitarian system often does not get to crises quickly enough, stay there long enough or deliver enough support to truly solve  the most pressing problems. More fundamentally, it is arguably poorly geared up to understanding the demands that may be placed on it by the future of today’s risk profile.

This emerging reality could mean that a new type of activity needs to be defined that more easily makes it everyone’s business to address the threats and consequences of crises. And that would involve defining a new role for the humanitarian sector in building its own Collaborative Advantage by making itself the platform to catalyse, enable and influence the participation of other sectors. This would mean creating a new paradigm for humanitarian action that is inclusive, collective, self-motivated and reaches parts of society that conventional approaches cannot.

I call this approach  ‘Surthrival’ and define it as the process of growing stronger in a world of complex  risks. Surthrival goes beyond existing concepts of crisis-related action. It transcends the formalised approaches to humanitarian altruism because it is in our own interests to help ourselves and others.

Surthrival involves building capabilities that are relevant to all our lives and to all our organisations to help us succeed in environments that appear increasingly complex, surprising and unpredictable. It involves the ability to learn from ‘strangers’, as an increasing portion of what we need to know in a surprising environment will not have previously occurred to us to learn. And it involves cultivating options so that, when one option becomes limited by something unexpected, we are protected and when surprising events provide additional opportunities we have options ready to pursue them.

With this aspiration in mind, Surthrival suggests four critical questions that those with humanitarian roles and responsibilities should consider:

  1. When serving the needs of people in conflict, how can one best empower people even in the most difficult  situations to help themselves and each other?
  2. When developing humanitarian effectiveness, how can we measure the degree to which non-controlled resources are successfully harnessed to contribute to humanitarian goals?
  3. When driving transformation through innovation, what ideas and practices from beyond the humanitarian system can be co-created to drive breakthrough progress?
  4. When seeking to reduce vulnerability and manage risk, how can we work in a distributed way to use everyone’s eyes in anticipating crises and engage right across society in prevention and preparedness?

In a most positive and practical way, Surthrival and its Collaborative Advantage underpinnings show the fundamental importance of dealing with humanitarian prevention, preparedness and response in terms of recognised mutual self-interest, which goes well beyond the conventional humanitarian sector, per se.

* Collaborative Advantage: How collaboration beats competition as a strategy for success is published by Little Brown Book Group, June 2018